AFC West burning questions for 2023: Can Chiefs repeat? Will Sean Payton revive Russell Wilson’s career?

In the 1970s, then-Oilers coach Bum Phillips famously declared that “the road to the Super Bowl goes through Pittsburgh.” The same can be said now about the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions who have hosted the last five AFC championship games.

On their way to winning two Super Bowls in four years, the Chiefs have owned the AFC West division. Andy Reid’s club has won the division seven years running after being runner-up behind Denver during each of Reid’s first three years in Kansas City. The Chiefs are once again expected to win the West, but the division may be tougher to win in 2023 than in recent years.

The Chargers, the division’s runner-up last year, have one of the league’s best young guns in Justin Herbert. The Broncos have a new coach in Super Bowl XLIV champion Sean Payton. The Raiders have a new quarterback and a talented receiving corps, led by perennial All-Pro Davante Adams. The Chiefs, however, still have the league’s best player in Patrick Mahomes, who last year became only the third player to win both league and Super Bowl MVP in multiple seasons.

With OTAs underway, here’a look at each AFC West’s burning question as we continue to inch closer to the start of the regular season.

Chiefs: Can they repeat as champions?

The iPhone was still three years away from existence the last time a team repeated as Super Bowl champion. If the Chiefs can end the drought by becoming the first team to repeat since the 2003-04 Patriots, it would be the exclamation point on what would be a slam-dunk dynasty.

Yes, “would” was used intentionally there. The Chiefs are not a dynasty just yet. Several teams have two multiple Super Bowls but are not considered dynasties. The ’70s Cowboys won two Super Bowls and played in three others, but they are not associated with the word dynasty. Ditto Bill Parcells’ Giants, the late ’90s Broncos and the 2000s Steelers. It takes three titles to be a dynasty, no more, no less.

Winning one Super Bowl is hard. No one knows this better than Reid, who coached at a high level for decades before he hoisted his first Lombardi Trophy as a head coach at the end of the 2019 season. Reid, as both an assistant and a head coach, also knows how difficult it is to win back-to-back Super Bowls. Reid has lost two Super Bowls a year after winning it. Both times, his team was favored but the opposition was better on that day.

Prior to Super Bowl LV, Mahomes probably envisioned a Super Bowl performance that would mimic previous ones from the likes of Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and even his own MVP effort in Super Bowl LIV. Instead, Mahomes conjured up memories of Fran Tarkenton, who ran for his life while trying to avoid the Steelers’ unrelenting pass rush in Super Bowl IX. The reason for Mahomes’ Tarkenton impression was a battered offensive line that had no shot against the Buccaneers‘ talented defensive front. The result was a 31-9 loss in a game that failed to live up to the Brady-Mahomes pregame hype.

The Chiefs were denied a third straight Super Bowl appearance a year later despite holding a 21-3 lead at halftime of the AFC Championship Game. Kansas City lost the lead and the game to Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals, who likely would have defeated the Chiefs again in this past year’s AFC title game had Cincinnati had at least two-thirds of its starting offensive line healthy.

Cincinnati, who during the offseason made offseason’s biggest free agent signing when they acquired former Chiefs’ tackle Orlando Brown Jr., might be the biggest obstacle standing in the Chiefs’ way of repeating. But opponents notwithstanding, the Chiefs have enough internal questions that may determine whether or not they can repeat. Will Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney be adequate replacements for JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman (the early guess is no)? Will Donovan Smith be an adequate replacement for Brown while returning to his pre-2022 injury level of play? Will the Chiefs’ defense, which is now without former Pro Bowl defensive end Frank Clark, be able to carry its weight?

These questions, along with recent history, suggests that the Chiefs will face too many obstacles that will deny them a third championship this year. The Chiefs, while deserving, were fortunate to have won last year’s Super Bowl after being on the right side of several breaks against the Bengals and Eagles. That said, the Chiefs still have one of the greatest coaches ever in Reid and one of the best quarterbacks ever in Mahomes. Like Brady and Bill Belichick the previous two decades, counting a Reid-Mahomes team out is not only foolish, it’s downright stupid.

Chargers: Can they finally take the next step?

The short answer is yes, but there are some reasons for concern. Justin Herbert is being limited at OTAs as he is still working his way back from January’s labrum surgery. Herbert is expected to be ready to go for training camp, but he won’t get the chance before camp to fully sharpen his rapport with his wideouts, especially rookies Quentin Johnston and Derius Davis.

Speaking of receivers, the Chargers have two really good ones in Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. But both players are coming off injury-plagued seasons, which is surely one of the reasons why the Chargers drafted Johnston and Davis.

Austin Ekeler is back despite requesting a trade earlier this offseason over a now-resolved contract dispute. But even with Ekeler, the Chargers were 30th in the NFL in rushing in 2022. That will have to change if the Chargers are going to be serious contenders in the AFC in 2023. If it does change, it would mean a bigger workload for Isaiah Spiller, a 2022 fourth-round pick (and two time 1,000-yard rusher at Texas A&M) who had just 18 carries last season.

The offensive line, unlike in recent seasons, is not a concern. The Chargers found out how good Jamaree Salyer is last year when he stepped in at left tackle for injured starter Rashawn Slater. Slater is back this season and along with Salyer will be flanked on the line by former first-round pick Zion Johnson, center Corey Linsley and veteran tackle Trey Pipkins. The Chargers added to the unit’s depth during the draft by selecting former Clemson guard Jordan McFadden in the fifth round.

An early surprise during OTAs has been the Chargers’ defense. Joey Bosa, instead of working out with his brother as he usually does this time of year, is at OTAs along with fellow former All-Pro Khalil Mack. In fact, the majority of the Chargers’ roster is taking part in OTAs, including other vital members of the defense.

Defensive backs Derwin James, Asante Samuel Jr., Michael Davis and Deane Leonard quickly made their presence felt at OTAs as the defense won the first seven-on-seven drills. The unit will be even better with the eventual return of J.C. Jackson, who could be ready to go by training camp less than a year after rupturing his patellar tendon.

Los Angeles added some young blood to its defense in April’s draft with the Day 2 selections of edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu (13.5 sacks for USC last season) and linebacker Daiyan Henley (106 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles during his final year at Washington State). Henley is slated to play behind Eric Kendricks, who arrived in Los Angeles this offseason after a highly-successful eight year run in Minnesota.

On paper, the Chargers are a team that is fully capable of making a deep playoff run. The depth they acquired this offseason — on both sides of the ball — might be what finally push the Chargers over the hump.

Raiders: Will Jimmy Garoppolo be ready for Week 1?

The Raiders’ new quarterback was a surprising no-show during OTAs. Garoppolo’s absence is reportedly the result of having March foot surgery after he signed with the Raiders. Garoppolo initially injured his foot on Dec. 6 as a member of the 49ers.

Raiders coach Josh McDaniels said Garoppolo’s absence is not a surprise and that the team was aware of his injury situation prior to his signing. But according to reports, the Raiders didn’t learn the severity of Garoppolo’s injury (specifically that it would require surgery) until a physical had been performed after his introductory press conference.

There doesn’t appear to be much of a concern from the Raiders regarding Garoppolo’s status for the team’s reason season opener against the Broncos. Regardless of his Week 1 status, Garoppolo missing offseason work will hinder his ability to work out the kinks while getting acclimated to a new team and new teammates. It will probably also impact his effectiveness if he is able to play in Week 1.

Garoppolo’s current situation comes on the heels of 31 missed games during his five seasons with the 49ers. The only time he didn’t miss a game in San Francisco, Garoppolo helped the 49ers get to the Super Bowl. But he missed 13 games the following season and six more games last season while dealing with injuries. Sandwiched between those seasons was a relatively healthy 2021 season for Garoppolo that included a second NFC Championship Game appearance.

That is the conundrum with Garoppolo. He has a gaudy regular season record of 40-17 and is 4-2 as a playoff starter. He’s thrown more than twice as many touchdowns than interceptions and has a career 67.6% completion percentage. Before getting injured last season, Garoppolo was completing 67.2% of his passes with 16 touchdowns against just four picks.

As effective as he was in San Francisco, Garoppolo’s detractors point to his injuries, lack of mobility and lack of big play ability. 49ers fans still cringe when they think about Garoppolo’s near miss on a deep pass to Emmanuel Sanders that — had it been completed — would have given the 49ers the lead late in Super Bowl LIV. Garoppolo was sacked on the ensuing fourth-down, and the Chiefs scored the game-clinching touchdown two plays later.

While they aren’t as deep as the 49ers, the Raiders have the talent — at least offensively — to support Garoppolo. But given his current and previous injury history, it would make a lot of sense for Las Vegas to bring in an experienced backup, especially since the NFL added an emergency quarterback on game days. Carson Wentz, Teddy Bridgewater and Nick Foles are several options of the Raiders want to go that route.

While it may end up working, Garoppolo and the Raiders are not off to a great start. It doesn’t seem like it will get much better, either, even though Garoppolo has a solid receiving corps to work with, led by Adams and Renfrow. But the Raiders don’t have much at running back behind Jacobs, who is currently holding out. Rookie Michael Mayer will have to fill former Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller’s shoes. The defense still has pass rushing extraordinaire Maxx Crosby, not much else.

In in all, it appears that Raiders fans will be in for another long season, regardless of Garoppolo’s Week 1 status.

Broncos: Can Sean Payton revive Russell Wilson’s career?

Zero. That is the number of playoff appearances the Broncos have had since winning Super Bowl 50 at the end of the 2015 season. That was probably the driving factor in Denver giving away so much of their future last season to acquire former Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl champion Russell Wilson. It may also be one of the reasons why the team quickly hired Sean Payton after Wilson’s first year in Denver was rougher than a $2 steak.

The Broncos knew that the only way to possibly salvage the Wilson era was to pair with him a proven coach who has a track record of success. They have that in spades with Payton, whose time in New Orleans included eight playoff appearances, seven division titles and the first Super Bowl win in franchise history.

Payton did pretty much all of that winning with Drew Brees, who will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as soon as he is eligible in 2026. The Broncos are hoping that Payton can have similar success with Wilson, a possible future Hall of Famer himself who has 108 regular season and 9 playoff wins under his belt.

But Wilson was beyond subpar last year. His numbers — 60.5% completion, 3,524 yards, 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — would have been solid in 1995. But certainly not in 2022, when 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns is the floor for a starting quarterback. More than numbers, Wilson often looked confused while failing to make the basic play. it also didn’t help that there were reports questioning Wilson’s rapport with teammates.

What will Payton do for Wilson? First off, Payton will build an offense that tailors to Wilson’s strengths while staying away from his weaknesses. It will include a considerable involvement from the running game, which is one of the reasons the Broncos went out and signed former Bengal Samaje Perine to team up with Javonte Williams.

Payton’s offense will also give Wilson more options on passing situations. That should lead to quicker decisions and less time scanning the field in the pocket. Payton will also have Wilson utilize his legs more but within the proper rate for a quarterback who will turn 35 during the season.

Payton and the Broncos helped Wilson by using their first pick in April’s draft to select wideout Marvin Mims Jr., who averaged nearly 20 yards-per-catch while at Oklahoma. They further helped Wilson by not trading any of their veteran wideouts that includes Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler.

Wilson has developed a quick rapport with Marquez Callaway, who was brought over from New Orleans this offseason. Wilson is also working with a retooled offensive line that includes former 49ers tackle Mike McGlinchey. These new faces, along with the Broncos’ returning starters, have helped Wilson-Payton era to a fast and promising start.

“He’s picking it up, the timing and all of those things that are required,” Payton said of Wilson, via The Athletic. “For the first five weeks, we were just lifting and running. So now we’re getting into some football activity, and we’re ahead of schedule on the practice, but, yeah, he’s picking it up. Looks good, looks sharp.”

Everything seems to be going well in Denver. But the thing we don’t know — and won’t know until next season — is whether or not Wilson still has it. Golf legend Arnold Palmer referred to it as the edge, the fine line between being an elite athlete and a former one. Wilson wasn’t necessarily that good during his final year in Seattle, either. And given the amount of hits he took in Seattle, it’s fair to question whether or not Wilson is already past his prime.

But for now, Broncos fans can hope better days ahead with Wilson and Payton. The Broncos are doing a solid job setting Wilson up for success. It’s up to Wilson to make the most of his new situation.

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